16 Black Actors Who Broke Barriers & Won Major Awards (PHOTOS)

Hollywood has been making movies for more than a century and television shows for more than 70 years, but opportunities for diverse actors and actresses in either medium has been slow in coming (see Viola Davis's recent achievement as the first black woman ever to win a best actress Emmy).

But that doesn't lessen their talent or achievement in any way. Here are 16 black actors who have broken barriers and blazed trails in entertainment, inspiring others who have followed them onto screens big and small.

 

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  • Cuba Gooding Jr.

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    After turning in a high-energy, iconic performance as a cocky football star in Jerry Maguire, Cuba Gooding Jr. reaped the rewards. At 29, he became the youngest black Oscar recipient ever. In his memorable acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, he whooped and leapt, repeating "I love you!" scores of times as he thanked a long list of people to the delight of the audience, which gave him a standing ovation. 

  • Jamie Foxx

    2

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    For comedian Jamie Foxx, Ray didn't just provide a breakthrough dramatic role. It was also an award-winning one. In 2005, Foxx became the first black actor since Sidney Poitier (1964) to win Oscar and Golden Globe Best Actor awards for the same performance, and the first black actor to be nominated in two Oscar categories in the same year (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for Collateral). 

  • James Earl Jones

    3

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    The actor who would become the voice of Darth Vader (Star Wars) and Mufasa (The Lion King) achieved acting greatness early. James Earl Jones was the first African-American to win a Best Actor Tony for a play (1969's The Great White Hope). He went on to win another (Fences), as well as four Emmys and an honorary Oscar, among many other awards.

  • Harry Belafonte

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    Before he became a civil rights legend, before he won three Grammys, an Emmy and a humanitarian award from the Oscars, and even before he made calypso music mainstream, Harry Belafonte became the first black actor to win a Tony. The New York native won Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his singing and acting brilliance in 1954's John Murray Anderson's Almanac.

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  • Sidney Poitier

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    When Sidney Poitier and pal Harry Belafonte were broke aspiring actors in New York, they used to share one ticket to theater performances, switching off between acts. A decade after Belafonte became the first black man to win a Tony, Poitier claimed another, even more high-profile first: In 1964, he became the first black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar, for the drama Lillies of the Field. In 2002, he received an honorary Oscar, too. 

  • Denzel Washington

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    Denzel Washington won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Glory in 1990 and a Best Actor one for Training Day in 2002, making him the first black actor to win both. The latter win came the same year that Sidney Poitier, the first black actor to win a Best Actor Oscar, received an Honorary Oscar for his contributions to film. "Forty years I've been chasing Sidney and what'd they do? They give it to him on the same night," Washington joked during his acceptance speech. Then he raised his Oscar to Poitier, who raised his back, and he added, "I"ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I'd rather do, sir." It was one of the most touching moments in Oscar history.

  • Morgan Freeman

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    Maybe Morgan Freeman is one of those actors who's so good that he's overlooked by the Academy. After all, he received his only Oscar (for a supporting role) in 2005, for his heartbreaking portrayal of an old boxing trainer in Million Dollar Baby. The award came late in Freeman's career and life: He was the oldest African-American to win an Oscar, at age 67.

  • Forest Whitaker

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    The year 2006 marks the last time an African American — Forest Whitaker — won the Best Actor Oscar. Whitaker won for playing ruthless dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. But the Texas native handed black performers everywhere a first in 1998 when he became the first (and so far, only) black actor of any gender, American or otherwise, to win the top acting award at the Cannes Film Festival. He won for his portrayal of jazz master Charlie Parker in Bird.

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  • Laurence Fishburne

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    He may be best known for his role as Morpheus in the Matrix film trilogy, but he's earned a Tony and two Emmys, and the latter are both African American firsts. Laurence Fishburne was the first actor to win Emmys for Featured Actor in a Drama series (TriBeCa) and Best Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries (Miss Evers Boys).

  • Al Freeman Jr.

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    Diverse casts are common on TV soaps nowadays, but just a few decades ago, they were rare. Al Freeman Jr. was a pioneer in the genre, and in 1979 he became the first African-American to win a Best Lead Actor Daytime Emmy for his role as police captain Ed Hall on One Life to Live. 

  • Louis Gossett Jr.

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    There may have been a 38-year gap between Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington's Best Actor Oscars, but smack in the middle of that span, Louis Gossett Jr. won a Best Supporting Oscar for his role as the unforgiving drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman. That made Gossett Jr. only the second African-American man to win an Academy Award and the first to earn one for a supporting role.

  • Robert Guillaume

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    As Benson, the butler at a governor's mansion in the 1980s sitcom of the same name, Robert Guillaume displayed a swagger that well predated Denzel Washington's. Guillaume's acting chops earned him a 1985 Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series, making him the first black actor to win in the category. The Emmy was the second for Guillaume, who won as Supporting Actor in a Comedy for Soap in 1979.

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  • Bill Cosby

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    Decades before becoming a Hollywood pariah after being accused of  drugging and assaulting scores of women, Bill Cosby was an entertainment pioneer. He was the first African American of either gender to win a primetime Emmy (Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) for his role as an undercover CIA operative in the series I Spy. It's one of six Emmys he's earned, in addition to a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in the United States.

  • Cleavon Little

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    The stage and screen star entered pop culture history playing a black sherriff in 1974's Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks' satirical take on westerns. But before he wore the gold star, he walked the Great White Way — Broadway, of course. Little became the first African American man to win a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, for Purlie.

  • Roscoe Lee Browne

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    Image via YouTube

    You may not know his name but you know his face from countless guest acting roles on TV — and you surely know Roscoe Lee Browne's voice, once described as a "baritone voice like a sable coat." The stage and screen actor with perfect diction was the first African American actor to win an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy, for his role as Professor Foster on The Cosby Show.

  • Andre Braugher

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    A talented actor who wields both dramatic and comedic acting weapons, Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Andre Braugher can do it all and is the most Emmy-nominated black actor ever. Having won the 1998 Best Actor in a Dramatic Series Emmy for Homicide: Life on the Street, Braugher went on to be the first African-American in 29 years to win a Best Actor Emmy for a movie (Thief) in 2006. 

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